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By now, with the enormous hype that has been spun around it, there probably isn’t an earthworm between John O’Groats and Land’s End that hasn’t heard about the auction of Damien Hirst’s work at Sotheby’s on Monday and Tuesday – the special character of the event being that the artist is offering the work directly for sale, not through a dealer. This, of course, is persiflage. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are now scarcely distinguishable from private dealers anyway: they in effect manage and represent living artists, and the Hirst auction is merely another step in cutting gallery dealers out of the loop.
If there is anything special about this event, it lies in the extreme disproportion between Hirst’s expected prices and his actual talent. Hirst is basically a pirate, and his skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people, from museum personnel such as Tate’s Nicholas Serota to billionaires in the New York real-estate trade, into giving credence to his originality and the importance of his “ideas”. This skill at manipulation is his real success as an artist. He has manoeuvred himself into the sweet spot where wannabe collectors, no matter how dumb (indeed, the dumber the better), feel somehow ignorable without a Hirst or two.
Actually, the presence of a Hirst in a collection is a sure sign of dullness of taste. What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs? Who can look for long at his silly sub-Bridget Riley spot paintings, or at the pointless imitations of drug bottles on pharmacy shelves? No wonder so many business big-shots go for Hirst: his work is both simple-minded and sensationalist, just the ticket for newbie collectors who are, to put it mildly, connoisseurship-challenged and resonance-free. Where you see Hirsts you will also see Jeff Koons’s balloons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stoned scribbles, Richard Prince’s feeble jokes and pin-ups of nurses and, inevitably, scads of really bad, really late Warhols. Such works of art are bound to hang out together, a uniform message from our fin-de-siècle decadence.
Hirst’s fatuous religious references don’t hurt either. “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, the sale is titled. One might as well be in Forest Lawn, contemplating a loved one – which, in effect, Hirst’s embalmed dumb friends are, bisected though they may be. Consider the Golden Calf in this auction, pickled, with a gold disc on its head and its hoofs made of real gold. For these bozos, gold is religion, Volpone-style. “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold! Open the shrine, that I may see my saint!”
His far-famed shark with its pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is “nature” for those who have no conception of nature, in whose life nature plays no real part except as a shallow emblem, a still from Jaws. It might have had a little more point if Hirst had caught it himself. But of course he didn’t and couldn’t; the job was done by a pro fisherman in Australia, and paid for by Charles Saatchi, that untiring patron of the briefly new.
The publicity over the shark created the illusion that danger had somehow been confronted by Hirst, and come swimming into the gallery, gnashing its incisors. Having caught a few large sharks myself off Sydney, Montauk and elsewhere, and seen quite a few more over a lifetime of recreational fishing, I am underwhelmed by the blither and rubbish churned out by critics, publicists and other art-world denizens about Hirst’s fish and the existential risks it allegedly symbolises.
One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods food hall. Living sharks are among the most beautiful creatures in the world, but the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12m for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination. As for the implied danger, it is worth remembering that the number of people recorded as killed by sharks worldwide in 2007 was exactly one. By comparison, a housefly is a ravening murderous beast. Maybe Hirst should pickle one, and throw in a magnifying glass or two.
Of course, $12m would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity. And there are plenty more where it came from. For future customers, Hirst has a number of smaller sharks waiting in large refrigerators, and one of them is currently on show in its tank of formalin in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inert, wretched and wrinkled, and already leaking the telltale juices of its decay, it is a dismal trophy of – what? Nothing beyond the fatuity of art-world greed. The Met should be ashamed. If this is the way America’s greatest museum brings itself into line with late modernist decadence, then heaven help it, for the god Neptune will not.
The now famous diamond-encrusted skull, lately unveiled to a gawping art world amid deluges of hype, is a letdown unless you believe the unverifiable claims about its cash value, and are mesmerised by mere bling of rather secondary quality; as a spectacle of transformation and terror, the sugar skulls sold on any Mexican street corner on the Day of the Dead are 10 times as vivid and, as a bonus, raise real issues about death and its relation to religious belief in a way that is genuinely democratic, not just a vicarious spectacle for money groupies such as Hirst and his admirers.
It certainly suggests where Hirst’s own cranium is that his latest trick with the skull is to show photos of the thing in London’s White Cube gallery, just ordinary photo reproductions made into 100cm x 75cm silkscreen prints and then sprinkled (yay, Tinkerbell, go for it!) with diamond dust, and to charge an outrageous $10,000 each for them. The edition size is 250. You do the maths. But, given the tastes of the collectoriat, he may well get away with this – in the short run. Even if his auction makes the expected tonne of money, it will bid fair to be one of the less interesting cultural events of 2008.
YouTube is best known for its offbeat videos that become viral sensations. But among its millions of clips is a treasure trove of rare and fascinating arts footage, lovingly posted by fans. Ajesh Patalay (of The Guardian) selects 50 of the best.
After years as an art critic in print publications, Charlotte Higgins has announced that she is becoming a full-time blogger.
So after four years as this paper’s arts correspondent, a reporter who tried to fit blogging in around the edges of my life, I’m about to move online. From this week, blogging will take its place at the heart of what I do. Why, apart from all of the above? Well, as a form, the blog is fantastically elastic – a quality that cannot fail to be seductive to a writer. Everything is up for grabs. A blog can be everyday, whimsical, deeply serious or all three; it can be published instantly (clearly a boon to journalists); it can be experimental.
Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the New Yorker who blogs at therestisnoise.com, has described his own gradual discovery, some years back, of blogs that weren’t just repositories for trivia about Star Wars (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but which contained serious writing about music. There was Jeremy Denk, for example, a professional pianist who, aside from posting hilariously eccentric pieces about yoghurt or waiting in airport queues, also offered in-depth musicological analyses of work he was approaching as a performer, alongside musical quotations and sound files. Ross has said he found the tide of these blogs by performers particularly intriguing, as potentially distant figures were gradually demystified through their presence online…
This new journey is not one that will be undertaken in isolation, but in the company of you, the readers. I don’t expect this to be a comfortable ride. For a long time, journalists have been largely insulated from the direct reactions of readers, and to find your loose arguments or baggy thinking being painfully held to account can be a shock to the system. On the whole, I’ve found this part of the experience a rewarding one. Who wouldn’t want a stream of ideas and arguments to come their way? The benefits of conversation and community outweigh any demerits; I’d rather be in the thick of things than loftily dispensing words into an apparent vacuum.
My blog is, of course, a small and extremely insignificant part of a revolution in the arts, and in the way newspapers now cover them. One consequence has been the ongoing debate about the status of “amateur” bloggers compared with the work of “professional” critics: will bloggers make critics redundant? Will critics increasingly fetch up as bloggers? In the US, this debate has been accompanied by the sacking of an enormous number of arts reviewers from newspapers. But I don’t think the two are polar opposites. For a start, many bloggers are professional critics, not least Ross and his colleague at the New Yorker, pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones; and not all professional critics offer uniformly excellent criticism.
When I wrote about the RSC shows, one of the cast said: “It’s like being reviewed as we go through.” I was shocked: I felt I was offering a response, as valid as anyone else’s – but, bluntly, not as a reviewer. Everyone can offer a response to an artwork; real criticism requires knowledge, experience, time, literary skill and insight. I see no signs that criticism is under threat in the UK, and if ever it were I would be the first to the battle line. For now, though, I am very happy to be breaking down boundaries, stepping on toes, genre-bending and throwing everything up in the air – all in a blog.
Zhu Pei worked with a manufacturer of fiberglass-reinforced plastic to develop a translucent fiberglass block for his Blur Hotel in Beijing. The architect wanted the building, which will sit near the East Gate of the Forbidden City, to glow like a Chinese lantern. (Courtesy of Architectural Record)
Say the words “new Chinese architecture” and what springs to mind? Ambitious skyscrapers, soaring apartment blocks, Olympian designs in central Beijing by celebrated international architects, and the unbridled kitsch of suburban estates like Thames Town, a bizarre mock-English development near Shanghai.
But even while great – and likable – tracts of old Chinese cities continue to come tumbling down in the names of change and modernisation, the country’s up-and-coming practices are developing intelligent new forms of specifically Chinese design, even if they do draw from the west from time to time. Whatever other glamorous projects these talented young architects are beginning to scoop up, it is mostly housing for ordinary people that concerns them – that, and a desire to change the direction of Chinese architectural development, all too often a soulless juggernaut ripping the hearts from old towns and cities.
Zhu Pei is one architect at the forefront of this new wave. In his busy Beijing studio, Zhu shows me ideas for the redevelopment of one of the city’s “hutongs”. Made up of tangling alleys brimming with workaday life, Beijing’s hutongs are fast disappearing. “This is the type of district most people lived in before the towerblocks arrived,” says Zhu. “Naturally, many people were happy to move out to new apartments because the hutongs were old, poor and often unsanitary. But the hutongs are built on a human scale and can be very beautiful. What we propose is reconstruction: adding gentle modern buildings where necessary, to improve them and make ordinary people like them again. We want the present to connect with the past – we want to perform an urban acupuncture on Chinese cities.”
This isn’t easy. As Zhu knows, it is far easier to design ambitious new museums and sporting venues than it is to construct modest, modern homes in age-old city courtyards and alleys, especially when such sites are being hungrily eyed up by state-sponsored property developers. Educated at Tsinghua University and the University of California, Zhu – who set up Studio Zhu Pei in 2005 with architects Wu Tong – was the man behind Digital Beijing, the all-but-completed control centre for the 2008 Olympics, as well an origami-like art pavilion in Abu Dhabi that will stand alongside monuments by Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. He is also working on designs for the Guggenheim Beijing and created the city’s Kapok hotel, with its translucent screens and shimmering courtyards.
A former Guardian art critic, who now delivers Olympian judgments for one of the Sunday newspapers, recently moaned to me that no one took him seriously any more. The “any more” bit was a trifle deluded, in my view, as I have never taken him seriously in any way. We have lost our authority, he wailed. “What authority?” I was tempted to ask, but didn’t. One can only mistrust critics who whimper about the waning of their authority. They are, I think, more interested in power than in writing. The only sensible way to deal with one’s power, such as it is, is to not think about it.
Which is not to say that what one writes doesn’t matter. The opposite is true. The only authority a critic or an artist can claim lies in the work they do. Everything else is just wind.
I don’t know what I think, often, till I write. The act of writing shows me what I think. I never know where things are going till I get there. There is an element of fiction and invention even in criticism. Being a critic has its performative side. For the writer, the problem, as much as it might be one of interpretation, is felt first of all in the difficulty of describing what one is looking at.
Description, however plain it appears to be, is never neutral, however technical it gets, whatever its claims to objectivity. And while we’re at it, criticism is never objective, never impartial, never disinterested. It is subjective and partisan. What else would you expect?
Writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence (although ignoring art – not speaking about it, not writing about it – is itself a form of criticism, and probably the most damning and effective one). An artist’s intentions are one thing, but works themselves accrue meanings and readings through the ways they are interpreted and discussed and compared with one another, long after the artist has finished with them. This, in part, is where all our criticisms come in. We contribute to the work, remaking it whenever we go back to it – which doesn’t prevent some artworks not being worth a first, never mind a second look, and some opinions not being worth listening to at all.
In the end, we are all critics. Listen to the babble of conversation as you leave the cinema or the theatre, or to the chat in the gallery. People argue about what they have experienced and about what the critics have said. This is good. But some voices might be worth attending to more than others, just as some artists, some playwrights, moviemakers, composers, choreographers are better than others. The fact that we can’t all agree on what is valuable (and why) keeps things interesting. It also keeps criticism alive.
Some things are not easy to grasp. We have to work at them. This, in part, is what criticism tries to do. It is also where a lively engagement with the art we encounter begins. And it is where we all begin to be critics.
It was my good fortune a week or so ago to hear the Luce annual lecture on American creativity, given by pioneer feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. The title of her lecture was Dislocating Tradition: Women Artists and the Body, from Cassatt to Whiteread. Having for years grappled in vain with the peculiar role of the body as both medium and message in women’s art, I hotfooted down to the Royal Academy and prepared to have my perplexities unknotted and my vestigial puritan revulsions dispelled.
It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject. At first, this was manifest in a tendency to produce an inordinate number of self-portraits. In 18th-century France, Vigée-Le Brun never tired of painting flattering portraits of herself, which was quite a good move for a society portrait painter, who was expected to do a similar job on her clients. At the same time, Angelika Kauffmann produced dozens of dreamy versions of herself not only in portraits, but also in allegorical paintings in which she figured as the personification of art or music or both. Frida Kahlo could engage with no subject other than her fictionalised and glamorised self. Her proliferating faux-naive paintings are advertisements for the performance that was her life.
For the women artists of surrealism, in the words of Whitney Chadwick, “the idealised version of the woman as muse was no help … rejecting the idea of the Muse as Other, they turned instead to their own images and their own realities as sources for their art. Even when the subject of the work is not the self-portrait per se, there is a persistent anchoring of the imagery in recognisable depiction of the artist.” The thought of art as solipsism has me tearing my hair. The convention of the muse is simply a trope figuring forth male creativity; if the convention was useless to women, they could simply have done without it, but, as most of them also chose to become sexually involved with male artists, they wasted a good deal of time playing the muse’s illusory role, apparently unaware that the muse is rarely the artist’s actual bedmate. A male artist’s recognition of his consort in the role of muse is mere gallantry. Why did the women artists of surrealism have to follow such a sterile, narcissistic paradigm? As for their images being recognisable, they made sure of that by posing for at least as many photographs as they made paintings. Most of them put more paint on their faces in a lifetime than they did on canvas.
The advent of performance art produced a tide of women artists, many of whom were not content with starring in their own show without stripping. Since the 1960s, when Carolee Schneeman took off her clothes to perform art in New York basements, I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism, and why it was that so many of the nude female performance artists had beautiful bodies. Could it have been coincidence? Even Helen Chadwick, a serious artist, took pride in displaying her own wonderfully elegant young body when somebody else’s would have done.
Professor Nochlin explained to us that Sam Taylor-Wood’s Portrait (1993) in a Fuck Suck Spunk Wank T-shirt, with her trousers around her ankles, was a “marvellous parody” of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. She pointed out that the cabbage on the table was a reference to the volute out of which the goddess steps in Botticelli’s painting, but she didn’t explain why Taylor-Wood chose to pose herself and let someone else (Stephen White) take the photograph. Any of Taylor-Wood’s art-school chums could have put on the T-shirt and adopted the pose, and Taylor-Wood could have taken the photograph herself. Sarah Lucas’s self-portrait with fried eggs on her chest was correctly described as “as arrogant as any male portrait”, but why did Lucas pose it herself? The fried-egg reference would be as appropriate to any other woman, no? Why is Tracey Emin the subject of all her own work? Is this good or is it pathological? Why does Jenny Saville deconstruct her own body? Why can’t she use someone else’s? There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?
The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women’s art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women’s work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.
Why does it seem odd to suggest that art can be humorous? It’s not as though we don’t encounter the words ‘art’ and ‘joke’ often enough in the same sentence, especially if ‘art’ is qualified by the adjective ‘modern’. But when we do it usually means that people’s suspicions are aroused. We make out that the joke is on us, so the art can be dismissed as not serious and therefore irrelevant. Art is supposed to come out of some discernible effort on the part of the artist, and the apparent effortlessness of a good joke inevitably undermines that expectation. If art is a joke then it’s not art, or so the thinking goes.
On the other hand, jokes and art have a good deal in common. They challenge assumptions, unsettle cosily habitual thought patterns and mock stereotypical behaviour. Surely they should often be found in each other’s company? In fact they are.
To take just two examples, the films of Swiss artist Roman Signer, currently showing in Edinburgh and soon to be seen in London, explore the comedic poetry of our encounter with objects. He calls himself an “emotional physicist” – maybe he really isn’t far removed from the comedian who walks into a lamppost. And the fact that we laugh at David Shrigley’s drawings reinforces rather than detracts from the sharp eye with which he observes life’s darknesses.
Making art nearly always involves destruction, even if it’s only the pristine purity of a white sheet of paper. Humour, too, can be merciless. Harnessed together they can add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Modern art’s iconic figure, Marcel Duchamp, was nothing if not a joker. His sardonic sense of humour is evident everywhere, especially in the postcard-size reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which he added a moustache and goatee, together with the words LHOOQ. Telling us that the only reason we look at Leonardo’s painting is because the subject has a hot arse (elle a chaud au cul) is, of course, deliberately provocative.
Duchamp’s defacement of a cherished treasure is insolent, yet if it causes anger it does so not because it is attacking Leonardo – who is beyond that, anyway? – but because it is mocking our lazy prejudices about what has cultural value. Art, he is saying, is about ideas, so seeing it requires us to use our brains rather than merely indulging our propensity to emotional incontinence.